Chiang Rai, Thai Switzerland

The beaches of Thailand are well known to Indian tourists, but not the mountains.

This is why I decided to visit Chiang Rai, the northernmost province of the country, famous for its rivers, its mountains and its two international borders (with Laos and Myanmar).

There is a lot to see and do in Chiang Rai: temples, gardens, mountains, elephant camps, tribal villages and places of art.

There are more than a dozen daily flights to Chiang Rai from Bangkok, Phuket and also many luxury tourist buses, making connectivity with this northern city easy.

On the first day, we focused on Chiang Rai’s famous temples, both traditional and modern.

Of the more traditional, the best known is Wat Phra Kaew, where the revered Emerald Buddha, now in Bangkok, was first discovered in 1434.
A large Jade Buddha was placed in its place. There is also an excellent Buddha museum with many Buddha images from all over the country.

Chiang Rai’s best-known temple is the spectacular White Temple, built by artist Chalermchai Kositpipat. It is based on traditional Thai architecture, white in color, and adorned with intricate mirrors on the floor and walls. There are also gold-colored buildings, including a stunning “golden toilet” for the public. There are constant additions to the temple, to attract new crowds, and the most recent is a building studded with images of Ganesha.

The Blue Temple is the other famous temple in Chiang Rai, built by another individual artist, Putha Kabkaew. The color of this one is a gorgeous sapphire blue. It has giant images of Yakshas, ​​Nagas, tigers, a giant black Shiva statue at the entrance, a white porcelain Buddha image inside. And outside the temple, they even sell blue ice cream!

Last but not least, the Black House Museum, created by world famous Thai artist, Thawan Duchanee. The museum is made up of 40 different Thai teak houses, filled with paraphernalia like snake skins, crocodile skins, buffalo skulls, not popular with animal lovers.

Then there is the Big Buddha temple. It is actually a magnificent giant image of the Chinese Guan Yin or Goddess of Mercy. The temple offers a breathtaking view of the whole city, and one can reach the top by a staircase or an elevator, which is well worth the effort.

Chiang Rai has a rich and varied art scene, visible at the Art Bridge Gallery which hosts a range of art exhibitions all year round. We were delighted to know that Chiang Rai will host its first biennial next year, for which a huge art museum is being built.

According to its co-artistic director, Gridthiya Gaweewong, “With over 300 local artists and 80 artist studios, Chiang Rai is well deserving of having a biennale.” She said she was checking various Indian artists to participate in the art event.

Chiang Rai is known for its Karen and Akha tribes, and it was interesting to visit the Karen Ruammit village and the elephant camp. The elephants were some of the friendliest I have ever seen and it was a joy to ride an elephant in the mountains.

The Akha tribes have many cafes in the Phahee valley, which can be reached by climbing up the winding valleys of Doi Chang Moob mountain with great views. Cafes also offer rooms for tourists who want to get away from the city and take a break in the mountains.

One of Chiang Rai’s best-known attractions is the view of the borders of the neighboring countries of Laos and Myanmar. It is in Chiang Saen, 60 km from the city, that we reach through lush rice fields and orchards.

It was also the area of ​​the infamous Golden Triangle, once the center of the opium trade in the region.

In fact, there are two opium museums, which offer excellent information on the subject.

It is fascinating to see the borders of Laos and Burma at such close distance from Chiang Saen, including the casinos, which attract many tourists and from Thailand.

There are also duty-free outlets on both borders, the best known being Maesai.

There are also many souvenir shops on the roads.

The mighty Mekong River, which is the most important river in the region flowing through six countries, is a major visual here.

We stopped for lunch at Athita’s new exotic and heritage resort, The Hidden Court, renowned for its grand old-world decor but delicious new-world fusion cuisine.

We discovered a wonderful coffee, on the banks of the Mekong, the Chewittikong coffee, which is a balm for the eyes and the soul.

You cannot leave Chiang Rai without visiting the magnificent Mae Fah Luang Gardens in the Doi Tung Mountains. This has often been called the “Switzerland of the East” and is known for its lush foliage and beautiful flower gardens. The gardens were first planted by the late Princess Mother, weaning the inhabitants of flower and fruit opium. His teak-wood Villa Mai Fah Luang, a Swiss-style chalet, offers great views and rich foliage. Of course, it is also the region of the famous Doi Tung coffee.

On the way back we walked into the much talked about new Lalita garden cafe. It was surreal and spectacular, with its artificial water jets but amazing flora and fauna.

Among the other attractions in Chiang Rai, we heard about the Singha mega-park, with its fields and views, as well as myriad activities for adults and children.
There are also the famous Tham Luang caves, where 13 young Thai boys were trapped and caught the world’s attention. It had closed due to Covid but reopened again.

It was on our last evening that we found time to visit downtown Chiang Rai, with its unique clock tower (where sound and light shows take place every night), the walking street of the weekend, lined with food stalls, and Jedyod Street with its bars and nightclubs.

Chivit Thamma Da Cafe, with its lush location on the Kok River and wide range of food and drinks, is also a must-visit spot. I enjoyed Chiang Rai’s best known Khaosoey dish there.

We enjoyed a great meal at the only Indian restaurant in town, Acha, which was packed with people. The most excited was our guide Kaan, an indophile, who has been to India several times.

There are free city tours every day, by tram, from two meeting points, which could serve as an introduction to the city.

For transportation, the local tuk tuk is good for short trips, and taxis/cars can be hired for longer trips. As the roads and highways are excellent, it is a pleasure to drive all around this northern Thai haven.

Chiang Rai has a wide range of accommodation, and we chose to stay at the famous The Legend hotel facing the Kok River. They have a variety of rooms, ranging from 52 m² to 1,405 m², as well as pool villas.

Ours was a super deluxe room, with a large living room, bedroom, balcony, bath and separate toilet. Their Italian restaurant La Casa is exceptional.

It was a pleasure to meet new GM Eric Hallin, a dean of the hospitality industry, who has worked in top hotels across the country, including India’s Rembrandt in Bangkok. He informed that he was delighted to welcome many Indian tourists from all over the world and looked forward to welcoming more from India.

“We definitely want more Indian tourists to visit Chiang Rai and enjoy the mountains as much as they enjoy the beaches,” said Wisit Buachoom, director of local tourism board TAT.

The final word came from Jaffee Yee, a well-known travel writer and editor who, after enjoying the cityscapes of Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong and Bangkok, chose to settle in this lush northern Thai city.

“Chiang Rai has the coolest climate, greenest mountains and richest culture among all 77 provinces in Thailand!” he raved.
He said it all.

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